After conflicting reports, David Whitley takes on the Tongariro Crossing (well, half of it) on New Zealand’s North Island.
“The Tongariro Crossing is for pussies”, I had been told elsewhere in New Zealand. “If you want to spend your day in a queue of people walking across a mountain, then great. But it’s really not that much of a challenge.”
The Tongariro Crossing is the big boy, sat high on the pedestal waiting to be shot at. It has long been one of New Zealand’s prescribed must-dos, and this status means it attracts both flak and tens of thousands of people wanting to take it on every year.
When half of it is closed due to volcanic activity – as is currently the case – there must be a temptation to file it in the overrated basket and skip it.
It’s when you get to the south crater that you realise succumbing to that temptation would have been a terrible mistake. Yes, you’ve hardly got it to yourself and, yes, the severity of the uphill grind to get there is vastly overstated. But my word, the scene is magnificent.
The South Crater is a vast flat, dust-blown field. A white track, created by footfall crosses the centre of it, and tufts of hardy grass manage to poke through an otherwise totally barren landscape. It looks like the sort of giant amphitheatre that would be used for some ultra-bloodthirsty Colosseum-style entertainment by an evil galactic emperor in a sci-fi film.
To the left, Mount Tongariro slowly climbs towards its summit. To the right, Ngauruhoe soars upwards, the perfect volcanic cone. It’s merely a vent of Tongariro, but it is higher. Small figures can be seen on its slopes, attempting to crawl up the brutal scree at a 45 degree angle. It’s a dangerous undertaking – rocks regularly tumble down into the would-be climbers’ path.
The figures are humans, but I half expect them to be Hobbits. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson and co had to do surprisingly little to make it look so deadly and forbidding.
The rest of Mordor comes into view as we climb along the ridge that leads out of South Crater. Over to the west is the Oturere Valley, a black and bumpy place formed by centuries of spilling lava.
Mordor is not the goal, though – the Red Crater summit is. And the views from there are so remarkable that I want to yabber about them to everyone I’ve ever met, whilst simultaneously weeping and drooling. Behind, the iron oxide stains the Red Crater a deep crimson. A sweep round brings into view Ngaurohoe, and Tongariro’s summit. But it’s the no-go zone ahead that’s the cherry on top. Inside the stark central crater, the Emerald Lakes dazzle with seemingly impossible intensity – the blue and green colours alarmingly vivid.
Beyond, looking deceptively close, but an hour’s walk away, is the Blue Lake. And behind it is the reason we can go no further. A white cloud rises above the water. It’s the Te Maari crater, which erupted twice in 2012 and is now being carefully monitored as it continues to let off steam.
It’s a reminder of where this landscape of lava flows, rusty orange rivers and bleak, rocky plains came from. And it’s a reminder that it has not finished changing.
We have to turn back. It’s not yet safe to make the full crossing. But despite occasionally having to wait for other people to go past or get out of the way of your photo, and despite not being the grand physical endurance test some people build it up to be, there are few places on earth that can compare. It’s not a walk into the unknown and it’s not a walk into solitude, but it’s a walk into something truly special.